Ken Ramsey, the winningest owner in Kentucky history and an accomplished breeder, has begun the process of dramatically downsizing his Thoroughbred operation with the intention of reducing his stock by more than 50 percent.
Ken and his wife, Sarah, have 630 horses as part of a massive racing and breeding operation centered at Ramsey Farm in Nicholasville, Ky., with another 100 foals expected this year. Vast numbers have brought them four Eclipse Awards as outstanding owners, two as top breeders in North America, and more than $84.5 million in earnings, but they have yet to win any Triple Crown races. And they have not come close in the Kentucky Derby, the prize they covet most.
“We want to downsize to have a quality operation instead of a quantity operation,” said Ken, 81.
He emphasized that he is not lessening his commitment to the industry. “I'm not having a dispersal. I'm not having a fire sale,” he said. “Our goals are changing. Our focus is changing.”
Ramsey, a self-made millionaire who grew up without indoor plumbing in Artemus, Ky., said the move was urged by his son, Jeff, and two of his grandchildren, Nolan and William, among others. They see it as a financial necessity.
“We don't have oil fields at our disposal,” Jeff said. “All of our income is derived from breeding and selling horses and racing horses.”
Jeff went on, “We kept 400 and more horses in training, and that's just very expensive. When we look at ways to make ourselves more profitable, we look at the number of horses we have in claiming races.”
(Editor's Note: Following publication of this article, Jeff Ramsey clarified that the current number of horses in training is 145, with 170 the highest it's been at one time.)
Ken Ramsey's enthusiastic and astute participation in the claiming game contributed greatly to 28 titles as the leading owner at Churchill Downs and 18 at Keeneland, both records. He also has won meet titles multiple times at Gulfstream Park in Florida and in New York, including the prestigious summer meet at Saratoga Race Course, as well as other venues.
“He likes to have winners all the time. Who wouldn't want to have winners all the time?” Jeff said. “But we want to focus on bigger races.”
The elder Ramsey said he has finally been persuaded that his numbers are unwieldy and unwise. “More than anything else, it's kind of gotten out of control,” he said.
He said of the overhead associated with claiming horses: “They actually cost you more money to own than a good horse because they have infirmities and they need vet work to keep them running.”
He may finally have been persuaded that he has little left to prove at the game's lower levels and would be better served by devoting more time and resources to Triple Crown prospects and international racing jewels such as the Dubai World Cup, which he won with Roses in May in 2005, and Royal Ascot.
“My grandparents have won many meet titles,” said William, a freshman at Butler University. “They've kind of done all they can do in that regard.”
According to Ramsey, he claimed one horse in the last two months while stepping up his aggressiveness in terms of placement to see that his claiming ranks are slashed. “Hopefully somebody claims them and they find homes elsewhere because they are not going to be in our stable,” he said.
His 2-year-olds in training number 92. He said he plans to sell a number of them privately and vows to be selective about the ones he retains. “As soon as we find out they're not going to be at least allowance horses, we'll drop them into low-level claimers,” he said.
He has not come close with seven Kentucky Derby starters that were generally ill-equipped for dirt and faltered at the classic mile-and-a-quarter distance. His breeding operation revolves around Kitten's Joy, a turf champion.
Ten Cents A Shine began his Derby travails when he ran eighth in 2003. He was followed by Dean's Kitten (14th, 2010), Derby Kitten (13th, 2011), Charming Kitten (ninth, 2013), We Miss Artie and Vicar's in Trouble (10th and 19th, 2014) and Oscar Nominated (17th, 2016).
He thought Louisiana Derby winner International Star might contend two years ago but was forced to scratch him the morning of the Derby with a foot injury. It is highly unlikely, though, that International Star could have threatened eventual Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.
Ramsey's best finish in a Triple Crown race occurred in 2005, when Nolan's Cat took third in the Belmont Stakes.
Ramsey's heavy involvement in the claiming game caused the number of broodmares he owns to soar because he opted to retain many fillies and mares once their racing careers were done. According to Mark Partridge, his farm manager, the family still has 220 broodmares after approximately 60 were auctioned off in recent sales. He expects to have substantial offerings at every major sale this year.
“We've been down this road before,” Partridge said, “but this is the most serious he's ever been.”
Partridge said the goal is to reduce the broodmare band to 120 at most with an emphasis on those they believe are likely to produce dirt horses capable of performing at Triple Crown distances. “We never thought Kitten's Joy could get us a Derby horse, but we think his mares can,” Partridge said.
Ramsey's successes have ranged from trucking to real estate to cellular telephones. He was at the forefront of the cellular boom and sold that business for an estimated $39 million in 1994. When necessary, he has shown a knack for reversing his fortunes.
He came up empty with his first 10 Breeders' Cup starters until he broke through with Furthest Land, among the best of his countless claiming horses, captured the Dirt Mile in 2009. Stephanie's Kitten, a homebred daughter of Kitten's Joy, brought home the Juvenile Fillies Turf (2011) and the Filly & Mare Turf (2015). Bobby's Kitten scored in the Turf Sprint (2014).
Although age is beginning to work against Ramsey, his desire to win the Derby burns brightly.
“My grandfather always talks about it, that he wants it on his tombstone that he won the Kentucky Derby,” William said. “I think with more focus it can become a reality.”
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